Author : Nicholas W. Allard

Original Text has been edited by AALEP


Public policy advocacy is an honorable profession. Low public esteem for public policy advocates is hardly a modem phenomenon. The reasons why public policy advocates have been reviled throughout history are legion, including the simple, undeniable fact that in some notorious cases public policy advocates got their bad reputations the old fashioned way: they earned it. However, more remarkable than the persistent image in the public consciousness of corrupt influence peddlers, is that today, while trust of professional public policy advocates is particularly low, the number of public policy advocates and the level of public policy advocacy activity continues to rise. Highly touted new laws and rules have not dampened the demand and need for public policy advocacy. Instead, greater regulation has actually coincided with a sharp increase in professional public policy advocacy, alongside an increase in related work by professionals with government-relations expertise representing clients facing oversight and public investigations.

Today, public policy advocacy is more necessary, widespread, and complicated than ever before. It is also more open, more professional, subject to more rules, and practiced with a greater degree of legal compliance.  

There is a great deal of myth and misperception about what public policy advocacy entails and the important role it plays in the democratic process. Public policy advocates are, with few exceptions, diligent and honest. The public does not have to rely solely on the integrity of lawmakers and public policy advocates  to protect the public interest. Perhaps the most effective self correcting mechanism in the policy process is the intense competition to be right. No single interest, no public policy advocate , has a monopoly on access and information. Lawmakers and their staff, if they are any good, as most are, do not rely on a single source of information when making policy decisions. They indeed have multiple information resources, including their own research, think tanks, Parliamentary Research Services etc.  So, while public policy advocates have an opportunity to influence policy decisions by informing lawmakers of their client's view, they are generally not the only source a lawmaker relies on, and there is additionally no guarantee the lawmaker will even listen.

The successful practice of public policy advocacy is rooted in the mastery of procedures and the ability to explain how a given position advances the public interest. This  advocacy work is conducted in a highly competitive, complex, and professional environment. The profession, techniques, and rules of the road are evolving. There is an increased the demand for experienced, skilled, and effective representation before lawmakers. The advocacy environment puts an additional premium on credibility and honesty.

Public policy advocacy and effective governance

Public policy advocacy plays a vital role in promoting effective representative government. By providing focused expertise and analysis to help public officials make informed decisions and often bridging the gaps in divided and gridlocked government, public policy advocates sustain and advance the policy process

The most basic function of the public policy advocate is to educate by providing information, and it is axiomatic that legislators benefit when they can consider information from a broad range of interested parties. The increasing scope and complexity of legislation and regulation as countries evolve and become ever more entwined in a global community has further magnified the importance of public policy advocates’ expertise.

Government has become sufficiently complex that, without the information public policy advocates bring to legislators, decision making would be-at best-poorly informed. While members of the executive or legislative branch of a government are not dependent on public policy advocates’ information and do their own research, public policy advocates often have information not available to them and they perform a critical function by confirming information and even informing lawmakers of unintended consequences of their proposals. Without such feedback, legislators and regulators might fail to achieve their objectives and could even do more harm than good. It is sometimes the case that without input from the erstwhile "beneficiary" of a new law or regulation, the provision would produce unwelcome results. Legislation is extraordinarily complex  and the staff available to members is very limited. And the only way that they can really get to the bottom of a lot of complex issues is to rely on public policy advocates.

Within the policy system in the US, public policy advocates are viewed as partners, collaborators, or educators. Public policy advocates also play an important role in advancing the policy process beyond gridlock and partisan division. Public policy advocates are uniquely able to bridge the gap of divided government. In some cases public policy advocates are the only ones who can overcome the impasse by shaping and building consensus on positions that accommodate competing interests.

From another vantage, public policy advocacy is also essential to the ability of individuals, interest groups, and businesses to successfully petition and monitor their government.

Public policy advocates play a critical "intermediating role" by enabling people and businesses to understand how government works and what government is working on, and then helping these people and businesses identify and communicate their interests to the government in an effective manner. As the scope of government increases and a larger and larger number of individuals and businesses are touched by government regulations sophisticated involvement in the policy process has become even more critical. One of the biggest challenges for people when they're faced with a public policy issue is defining what the issue is from the perspective of people in government. The main thing a client should be looking for in a public policy advocate or government relations consultant is for help to think the way people in government have to think when they're looking at an issue.

The increasing complexity of government further supports the need for skilled public policy advocates to enable the public to effectively monitor, comprehend, and petition the government. For these reasons, public policy advocacy has become an increasingly ubiquitous activity, and the advocacy environment has become correspondingly more diverse.

The workings of the advocacy system

Successful advocacy ultimately depends on the public policy advocate’s ability to explain how a given position advances the public interest, to respond to counter arguments advanced by persuasive and skillful advocates, and to do so credibly, consistently, and concisely. As opposed to a simple or a linear model of influence, the public policy advocacy profession is in fact a multi-faceted and competitive enterprise, on large issues almost always requiring multi-dimensional, and multi-phase advocacy strategies.

A public policy advocate’s job is complex

  1. First, meeting with and communicating with government officials usually represent only a small portion of a public policy advocate’s time. A far greater portion of time is generally devoted to other aspects of preparation: researching and analyzing legislation or regulatory proposals, monitoring and reporting on developments, attending parliamentary or regulatory hearings, working with coalitions interested in the same issues, developing strategy and evaluating tactics, and communicating with clients about the implications of various policies, proposals, and developments.
  2. Second, as a public policy advocate , who you represent and what you have to say on their behalf are more important than who you are. The key to successful public policy advocacy is providing a more persuasive analysis of the issue on the merits and explain issue in terms of constituent interest.
  3. Third, part and parcel of persuasion on the merits is the advocate's reputation and credibility. Public policy advocacy is by necessity honorable, because a public policy advocate is only as good as his/her reputation. A reputation is built by being forthcoming and honest. If you don't provide the full story or all the information, not only will you not be trusted, but your reputation will reflect this. And then doing your job will become impossible. The coin of public policy advocacy, as of politics, is trust. .. truth telling and square dealing are of paramount importance in this profession. If one lies, misrepresents, or even lets a misapprehension stand uncorrected--or if someone cuts his comers too slyly-he/she is  dead and gone, never to be resurrected or even mourned. To be a credible public policy advocate  you have to provide credible, valuable information. Consistently  providing reliable information is the single most important tactic. The most effective public policy advocates are those who provide credible information in a concise fashion and who also present and address the opposing view.
  4. Fourth, while a persuasive message and a credible messenger are necessary for successful advocacy, they are hardly sufficient. The modem advocacy environment is extremely competitive and strategies for successful influence are necessarily complex and multi-dimensional, requiring the messenger to also be a procedural expert grounded in the substance of the issue at hand. Indeed, to successfully work public policy advocates need to be substantive policy experts and communications strategists able to run public policy advocacy efforts like a sophisticated political campaign.

Public policy advocacy is an enterprise that demands a multitude of strategic and intellectual skills, and adeptness at tactics and communications, all conducted at warp speed.

Navigation of the public policy making process is also challenging

For an even better understanding of the complexity of the advocacy process it is important to view the process from both an external and an internal perspective. The external perspective, what might be called indirect advocacy, focuses on efforts to inform and leverage public opinion on an issue in order to shape political outcomes. Indirect advocacy involves research institutions, education and public relations campaigns, mobilization and strategic communication efforts, and coalition building, all of which take place outside of the legislative chamber, but with obvious indirect effects. Coalition building in public policy advocacy is an effective tactic to present a united front for diverse groups. Public policy advocacy activity is also highly and increasingly complex from an internal legislative perspective. Public policy advocates thus have to be aware of who the key legislative players are and how they approach a given subject, when determining the best path by which to advance a proposal. Public policy advocates also have to be strategic about their own goals and have to tailor them to the political and policy context. Most importantly, public policy advocates have to be experts in the often abstruse routines and procedures of government decision-making. An effective public policy advocate must understand the rules of how the various institutions work, internally and with each other and more generally must have a clear fix  on how the government actually works, how the pieces fit together, how things get done.


Public policy advocacy is an honorable profession. For the most part, public policy advocacy is necessary, difficult work performed by law-abiding, highly skilled professionals who help government arrive at better-informed, and hopefully better, decisions. Good public policy advocates can contribute a lot to good government. The practice is hardly perfect. Ultimately, further improvement in the way public policy advocacy is conducted and the reputation of the profession is in the hands of public policy advocates themselves. Public policy advocates  should in good faith make every effort to comply with the letter and spirit of the laws, and to advise their clients to do so. They need to learn the public policy advocacy and ethics rules and take them as seriously as they do their advocacy.

Beyond altruism, there is a very practical reason why public policy advocates should observe the law and rely on the quality of their efforts in the practice: if they lack integrity and cannot be trusted, they have no career and will be run out of town with no tears wasted. Effective public policy advocacy is an important part of a pluralistic democracy and can lead to improved and politically acceptable government decisions. Modem public policy advocacy is a highly competitive, complex, and professionalized enterprise. Credibility, accuracy, flexibility, and brevity are important tools, more so than campaign contributions and personal relations. Public policy advocacy not only requires skill and hard work, but is increasingly multidimensional, given the increased complexity of the world in which we live, the increased diffusion of power and complexity of government, the speed and volume of public policy, and the proliferation of competing, well-represented adversaries. There is honor in doing a good thing as well as you can. More so if the job is truly tough and the odds are long. There is honor in helping to find a solution to public policy problems, which is another way to describe public policy advocacy. Moreover, to young adults beginning their careers, public policy advocacy is a worthwhile career. Public policy advocacy work is an extremely attractive and honorable career option.

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